NORTH YARMOUTH — With many traditional summertime events canceled or altered this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Maine Recreation and Park Association is encouraging families across the state to celebrate the outdoors in a safe and socially distanced way: camping in their backyards.

The first annual “Maine Backyard Campout” runs the weekend of July 10-11, and nearly 30 Maine recreation departments are participating and promoting it so far, according to Lisa Thompson, an at-large board member with the association, and director of the Wescustogo Hall & Community Center in North Yarmouth. July is National Parks and Recreation Month.

Hearing from a friend in the parks and recreation field that this would be a particularly good year for the Great American Backyard Campout – a program organized by the National Wildlife Federation – Thompson was inspired to ask her fellow board members if such an initiative could be promoted in Maine.

The Maine Recreation and Park Association has organized the “Maine Backyard Campout,” to run the weekend of July 10-11.

The communities involved include Buxton, Casco, Cumberland-North Yarmouth, Gray-New Gloucester, Portland, Raymond, Scarborough, Standish, Topsham, Windham and Yarmouth. A full list, and contact info for families wishing to participate, is posted at merpa.org. A resident of a community not on the list can likely join in a neighboring town’s activities, Thompson said.

Registration is free and required in order to be included in the event’s various activities and updates.

“Every community is offering different things,” Thompson said. She hopes later in the week to have a rough idea how many families have registered across the state.

In Cumberland-North Yarmouth – where three or four families had signed up, and Thompson is aiming for 20 – she is planning a daily Facebook post the week leading up to July 10, and offering backyard campout preparation checklists and various s’mores recipes. Thompson is working with Fire Chief Greg Payson to send out campfire safety guidelines.

Stones Cafe & Bakery and North Yarmouth Variety also plan to organize a “meal deal” package for campers; Thompson hopes the arrangement will bring extra business to both operations, given the economic strains caused by the pandemic.

Topsham’s Parks and Recreation Department, run by Pam LeDuc, is working with the Fire Department to provide fire safety information to campers, and will provide them with packets of suggested activities and instructional guides, she said. Following a drawing prior to the weekend, gift packets will be delivered to five participating families.

The communities will take part in a photo contest, through which campers can upload photos to Instagram with the hashtag #mainebackyardcampout. “We’re going to collect those and make a slideshow of all of them that we’re going to promote on the MRPA webpage,” Thompson said.

A family doesn’t necessarily need camping gear or even a backyard to participate. “If you have a swing set, if you have a trampoline, if you have a plastic pool that’s empty, you can make a tent,” and participating communities will provide information on how to do so, Thompson said.

For those without backyards, a living room can be fashioned into a campground. “Really creative ways,” Thompson said, “we really don’t want people to go out and spend money on new camping equipment, unless they really want to. … It’s not our goal for people to A, spend money, or B, gather in big groups. We’re trying to really promote social distancing, being safe, but still having fun with your family.”

It’s the association’s only special event this summer, Thompson said: the usual discount ticket sales to Funtown, and the state track meet aren’t happening this year.

Given the stress and anxiety brought on by COVID-19, camping is “something different to do; it’s something fun to try,” Thompson said. “… If we can get anything good from this pandemic, I think the silver lining is, people are willing to try new things that are a little bit outside the box.”

“Right now it’s important for us to have a sense of belonging,” LeDuc said. “Even though we can’t all be together, we can at least do something like this and share.”

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